Politics of Poverty

While the sun shines: How Salvadorans are leading their own efforts to prepare for the worst

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“First, there was drought,” says Karen Ramírez of PRO-VIDA, a local NGO working on water rights and disaster risk reduction. “Then there was too much rain.” Ramírez holds meetings with community members to get feedback on PRO-VIDA’s food voucher program, and to help them make plans to face the ongoing El Niño crisis. Ramírez is an outstanding local leader in El Salvador, and represents the type of people donors and others should be investing more in around the world - before and during humanitarian crises. (Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America)

Oxfam is advocating for donors to work harder to support local self-reliance in emergencies.  El Salvador provides a great example of a country working hard to get disaster response and preparedness right.

This blog is part of a series about how people in El Salvador are working to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. 

Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts—these and other natural disasters kill tens of thousands of people each year, and cause suffering and homelessness for millions more.  Most of the people impacted by these emergencies live in countries that are too poor to manage the response and recovery themselves.  Often, the people impacted most are themselves poor.  In these circumstances, humanitarian relief from the international community is crucial to save lives and help people begin the process of recovery.

But what if we could prevent more of this death suffering in the first place?  What if we could support more countries—particularly those who contend with the most natural disasters—to strengthen their ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies?

In El Salvador, a coalition of government, citizens and business are working to make their country less reliant on international help.  And in less than two decades, they’ve managed to make great strides.

In July of 2014, I traveled to El Salvador with my colleagues to see what strong local preparedness looks like in practice.  We choose El Salvador because we had heard of the remarkable progress the country had made in disaster preparedness, and we wanted to see for ourselves what lessons Oxfam, the United States government, and other countries might be able to learn from their example.

El Salvador routinely ranks among those countries with the world’s highest vulnerability to natural disasters.  The territory of the country sits along a major tectonic fault, which is the source of several active volcanoes, frequent earthquakes, and associated tsunamis.  Furthermore, the mountainous terrain combined with heavy precipitation, deforestation and poor land use management makes many Salvadorans vulnerable to landslides and flash floods.

At the time of our visit, the country was managing the economic and agricultural impacts from coffee rust, drought from an emerging El Niño system, and epidemics of two mosquito-borne diseases, Dengue and Chikungunya.

And yet, over the last 20 years, El Salvador has managed to greatly increase its capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from these emergencies.  In 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck El Salvador, killing 240 people and leaving 84,000 homeless.  Mitch also caused substantial economic devastation, destroying approximately 25 percent of the country’s agricultural production and 1200 miles of roads.

Thirteen years later, Tropical Depression 12E dropped twice as much precipitation on El Salvador as Hurricane Mitch, yet the negative impact was substantially less; only 35 deaths were recorded and 328 homes were destroyed.

What accounted for this dramatic improvement in lives saved and suffering averted?  One significant factor is the significant efforts by the government and people of El Salvador since 2005 to strengthen planning and systems for risk management and emergency response.  This shift was in large part thanks to a new emergency response law passed by the Salvadoran legislature in 2005, which expanded the country’s focus from simple emergency response to include preparedness, prevention and risk mitigation.  Under the law El Salvador has, among other things, implemented new early warning and risk management systems in government ministries; created government and civilian emergency response plans; and organized volunteer community commissions at the municipal level to carry out risk management in communities.

This work is going on in a context of significant poverty and social violence.  El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with a high degree of inequality.  The homicide rate in El Salvador is among the highest in the world, approximately 43 per 1000.  And the legacy of division from El Salvador’s long civil war in the 1980’s complicates efforts to forge political consensus.

Nonetheless, El Salvador’s progress on reducing the human cost of natural disasters is a real and measurable success that is saving and improving the lives of its citizens.  Our team sought to understand the roots of their success, and see what we could learn from these achievements.

Oxfam is already working to make this happen with the local organizations we work with around the world.  Our own goal is that by 2019, all of the local humanitarian organizations that work with Oxfam will be prepared to respond to small emergencies, those impacting 200,000 people or less, without Oxfam’s immediate assistance. And we’re pushing the U.S. government to join us in this work through our ‘No Parachutes Needed’ campaign.  When disaster strikes, local organizations are the first on the scene, often before international networks can mobilize; so if we want to save lives, it’s imperative that we support their efforts.

But local organizations alone cannot ensure that a country successfully manages the lead-up and aftermath of a disaster.  It takes leadership from all levels of society, including the government, civil society, and the private sector, to make sure a country is prepared. This is why Oxfam will continue to advocate for donors, governments and other relevant actors to invest more in disaster preparedness. Because helping countries to do more on their own is both the smart and right thing to do.

Oxfam is advocating that humanitarian actors do more to support local leadership and self-reliance in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies:

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